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Building Suburban Dreams: School District Secession and Mayoral Control in Suburban Utah

by Edward Buendía & Paul Humbert-Fisk - 2015

Background/Context: Mayoral control of large city school districts has become the newest form of school district reorganization. Researchers have documented how real and perceived crises have propelled mayors in Chicago, Baltimore, and Washington DC, amongst others, to redefine the role of board governance by situating the operations of districts within mayoral governance portfolios. There is little research examining the role of suburban mayors in suburban school district secession movements. Demographic changes as well as tensions around funding and programs have prompted splits in suburban school districts within metropolitan regions that warrant study.

Purpose: This article examines the educational, demographic, and political dynamics that fueled the contest between suburban city mayors and school district leadership leading to the secession and fragmentation of the largest suburban school district in Utah. The authors sought to understand how this mayoral led secession activity interfaced with mayoral control activities in big cities. We also aimed to identify the parallels and departures that existed in the sources of tension in this case of suburban school district division and historic patterns of suburban political fragmentation, particularly, suburban cities’ creation of autonomous jurisdictions separating them legally and institutionally from urban school districts as a means of assuring clear racial divisions.

Population/Participants: The research participants included four mayors, two assistant mayors, four school district transition team members, six teachers as well as two school district administrators. Six focus groups comprised of four to six parents also participated.

Research Design: This study employed qualitative research methods as well as descriptive statistical data analysis. The researchers interviewed mayors as well as parent and community focus groups. Newspaper media pertaining to the events were collected and analyzed as triangulating data. The researchers also analyzed census data using Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software.

Findings/Results: The authors found that rapid demographic and financial shifts in school districts shared by multiple suburban cities can catalyze mayors to organize and act aggressively to split existing school districts. Strong city mayors were a key force propelling the modification of district governance structures through heightening the prominence of city borders and local control, even when the threats were neighboring middle-class cities composed of white residents. Mayors moved the region’s political and educational dynamics one step closer to a mayoral control governance structure. The political, demographic, and economic relationships underlying these scenarios positioned suburban school district administration with few options in which to respond.

Conclusions/Recommendations: The authors conclude that these practices of division and appropriation by cities and their leadership will only diminish democratic processes of school governance and exacerbate social-class and racial segregation across suburban school districts over time. The authors recommend that regionally based governance bodies be formed that help maintain a regional perspective to educational policy.

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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 117 Number 9, 2015, p. 1-52
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18047, Date Accessed: 5/12/2021 7:52:53 PM

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About the Author
  • Edward Buendía
    University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    ED BUENDÍA is a professor of education at the University of Utah. His primary areas of research include the social context of suburban and urban education, and the production of school knowledge. His recent work includes the journal article "Reconsidering the urban in Urban Education: Interdisciplinary conversations" (Urban Review, 2011) as well as his and Nancy Ares’ coauthored book entitled Geographies of Difference: The social production of the East Side, West Side and Central City School (Peter Lang, 2006).
  • Paul Humbert-Fisk
    University of Utah
    E-mail Author
    PAUL HUMBERT-FISK is a Ph.D candidate in the department of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. His primary research interests are on the use of boundaries in the creation and perpetuation of inequalities as well as the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in educational research.
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